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Aprile 5 2022.
Ultimo aggiornamento: Febbraio 15 2023
Updated fact-checking Russian disinformation about Bucha’s massacre

Journalists who were able to reach Bucha after the departure of the Russian troops witnessed streets lined with abandoned corpses, some of which showed signs of summary executions, such as hands tied behind their backs, and clearly visible bullet holes marking their bodies

For the last five weeks, the Ukrainian town of Bucha has been suffering under fire from the Russian army, which invaded the country on February 24. On April 1, the town was liberated and Ukrainian forces gained back control. In that timeframe, hundreds of civilians were killed indiscriminately and buried in mass graves.

Journalists who were able to reach Bucha after the departure of the Russian troops witnessed streets lined with abandoned corpses, some of which showed signs of summary executions, such as hands tied behind their backs, and clearly visible bullet holes marking their bodies.

These pitiless reports led Ukrainian authorities and international analysts to accuse Russia of war crimes, but as soon as disturbing videos and pictures of the massacre started spreading online, Russian authorities denied the allegations, claiming that the pictures were a “provocation” and “a staged performance” organized by Ukrainian forces “for the Western media”. As already happened  after the bombing of the pediatric hospital in Mariupol, Russia started a massive disinformation campaign in order to deny the massacre through the exploitation of conspiracy theories circulating online.

What happened in Bucha

Bucha is a town of about 37,000 people not far from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, a strategic position which turned it into a nevralgic point in the conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The town was invaded by Russian land forces on February 27, and it was entirely seized on March 12.

Ukrainian forces tried to regain control on March 16, but they succeeded only about two weeks later, on March 31, when Russia decided to drastically downsize its military operations in Kiev’s area. As Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, international reporters – mostly from the Bbc and the Associated Press – were able to enter the town and witness the devastation left by the invaders.

Even though a detailed report of what happened in Bucha is not yet available, videos shot on the ground show dozens of corpses left on the sides of the streets. According to Bucha’s mayor Anatoly Fedoruk at least 280 people have been buried in mass graves by the Russian army.

Russia’s version

However, Russian authorities offered a radically alternative version of what happened in Bucha, and according to the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskow Ukrainian reports about massacred civilians are fake. On April 4, during a press conference, Peskow explained that “experts at the Ministry of Defense have identified signs of video fakes and various fakes,” without adding further details.

The day before, this same theory was supported by War on Fakes, a website and Telegram channel created on March 1, 2022, which presents itself as a “fact-checking organization.” On April 3, War on Fakes claimed that images of corpses allegedly shot in Bucha are allegedly part of a “mediatic campaign” planned by “several foreign publications.” This is supposedly proven by the timing of their release, which happened four full days after Russian forces withdrew from the town.

As Edmo previously reportedWar on Fakes cannot be considered as a legit fact-checking or debunking organization. Together with other media managed by Russian propaganda, it uses a disturbing set of new tactics to debunk non-existent fakes, with the main goal of sowing doubt with Russian and European audiences about the real development of events.

The (false) movement of the hand

The widely discussed footage used by Russia to deny accusations in Bucha comes from a tv broadcast published on April 2, 2022 by the YouTube channel of Espreso.Tv, a Ukrainian tv station. In turn, the video published by Espreso.Tv was originally posted on Facebook that same day by Ilya Novikov, a Russian lawyer with Ukrainian origins who defended several Russian political prisoners. In sharing the video, Novikov labeled it as “exclusive material from Bucha.”

A part of the video was shot from inside a moving vehicle, and it shows some corpses on the sides of the street. The footage lasts only a few seconds, and according to Russian authorities it allegedly shows a corpse moving his hand, thus proving that the whole scene was staged.

This is false, and the “moving hand” is actually an optical illusion caused by a drop of water on the car glass. Several fact-checking projects part of Edmo, such as Facta (Italy) and (Spain), debunked the false interpretation of the video provided by Russia.

As highlighted by the Aurora Intels’s Twitter account – a team focused on analyzing contents, data, and news coming from publicly available sources – a slowed-down version of the footage, with colors inverted to maximize contrast, shows clearly that the alleged “movement” is actually due to a temporary distortion of the image caused by a drop of water on the car glass. On April 2, when the video was shared for the first time, it was raining in Bucha.

Sitting bodies?

Another case of disinformation that originated from Novikov’s video concerns the image that is reflected in the car’s side mirror, which apparently shows a moving body. Conspiracy theorists used it to claim that people were not actually dead, because they were able to get up as soon as the car passed by.

However, the original version of the video – which has a higher quality than the ones shared on social media – shows no movement whatsoever among corpses on the side of the streets. On April 3 Shayan Sardarizadeh, a Bbc investigative journalist, explained on Twitter that the apparent movement is actually due to the natural distortion created by the side mirror of the car.

The work of The New York Times

An analysis of satellite images by The New York Times rebuts claims by Russia that the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, occurred after its soldiers had left the town.

Here the satellite work of the NYT.

In conclusion

Disinformation about the conflict in Ukraine keeps spreading, supported by Russian propaganda. As it happened with the bombing of the hospital in Mariupol, the Kremlin reported a misleading version of what happened in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which is contradicted by videos, pictures, and stories reported by journalists on the ground.

The original footage we analyzed unequivocally shows that the victims in Bucha are real, and indicate that Russian troops are responsible for killing innocent civilians.

This article has been originally published on the Italian fact-checking project, part of the EDMO network, on April 4, 2022. It is republished here with minor modifications.

Fact-checking Bucha’s massacre – ?Part 2 – Updated

On April 3 international media started publishing videos and pictures of the massacre that took place in Bucha, a Ukrainian town in Kiev’s region. According to reliable, first-hand reports, Russian forces occupied the town approximately from February 27 to March 31, and during that time frame they killed hundreds of civilians, some of whom were buried in mass graves.

As soon as videos and pictures showing the scale of the massacre started circulating, Russian authorities denied killing civilians in Bucha, and rather accused Ukraine of staging the whole situation “for the Western media.” In order to support this thesis, the Kremlin used two main narratives. The first one was based on the discrediting of the videos shot by the Ukrainian forces in Bucha after the withdrawal of Russian troops, which show a general situation of despair and several bodies in civilian clothes laying on the sides of the streets. According to Moscow, though, these videos would have been staged by Ukrainian forces, a theory proved by the fact that some corpses are actually moving. We debunked this false narrative in a previous Edmo article.

The second element used by Russian propaganda to deny the country’s responsibilities in Bucha is based on the timeline of events. While this narrative is more difficult to debunk, it’s not impossible: international media aggregated all the available pieces of information, analyzed videos and satellite images, and proved the falsehood of the Russian thesis.

Russia’s timeline

On April 3, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated on its official Telegram channel that Russian troops had abandoned Bucha on March 30, but videos of atrocities started appearing on social media on April 3, four days later. The Kremlin thus accused Ukraine of having used that timeframe to stage the massacre. (Actually, videos and pictures showing dead bodies in the streets of Bucha started spreading earlier, on April 1. On that same day, Bbc journalists were able to enter the town, and witnessed the presence of corpses and burned tanks.)

As explained by Italian fact-checkers at Facta, the timeline of events that took place in Bucha between March 30 and April 2 is still unclear, also because the Bucha’s city council and the town’s Mayor provided contradictory information.

Before analyzing why the Russian version of the events doesn’t add up, let’s see the timeline provided by Ukrainian authorities, which also presents some inconsistencies.

Ukraine’s (contradictory) version

On March 30 the military authorities of Kiev’s region labeled Bucha, Vorzel and Gostomel (two other neighboring towns) as particularly dangerous areas, where infrastructures and residential buildings had been hit by bombings and Russian forces “kept terrifying the local population.”

The following day, on March 31, the administration said that Bucha remained under Russian control. Things changed on April 1: while the Secretary of the Bucha city council said that the town remained  “dangerous” and “under occupation,” even though Russian troops were starting to leave, Bucha’s Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk published a Facebook post saying that the town had been liberated on March 31.

The differences between these communicative approaches remains unclear: on the one hand, the city council was still warning citizens to be cautious, while the Mayor said the town had already been liberated. However, it’s understable that information coming in real time from such complex and critical contexts could be fragmentary or contradictory, even when the sources are considered to be reliable.

However, Fedoruk had started denouncing the presence of dead bodies and mass graves days before, and the Facebook page of the city council published several posts about the town’s progressive liberation. It’s likely that, on March 31, the Mayor anticipated with his messages the actual liberation of Bucha.

According to several international media, Russian forces started withdrawing from Bucha between March 30 and March 31, and on April 2 Ukrainian vice-Minister of Defense Ganna Maliar announced that Ukraine had regained control over “Irpin, Gostomel, and the whole Kiev region.”

While Ukraine’s timeline is not completely clear, but overall has been confirmed by local authorities and international media, Russia’s version of events has been debunked. Let’s see why.

Debunking propaganda

Investigations by independent media proved that the Kremlin’s timeline thesis doesn’t add up. On April 4, the New York Times published an in-depth story about what happened in Bucha. The Visual Investigations team at the newspaper conducted an analysis of videos and satellite images provided by a private company, showing that many of the victims had been killed “more than three weeks” before news about the massacre started spreading on April 2, “when Russia’s military was in control of the town.” This “rebuts claims by Russia that the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, occurred after its soldiers had left the town,” the Times wrote.

Bellingcat, a journalistic project specialized in Osint and investigative reporting, also debunked Russia’s version of the events.

In conclusion

As soon as the Russian forces withdrew from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, around April 1, pictures and videos started circulating showing dozens of dead bodies on the sides of the streets and in mass graves. Russia quickly denied any responsibility in the killing of civilians, and labeled the images as deliberately staged by Kiev “for the Western media.”

One of the most contested elements of this story is the timeline of events, which was presented differently by Ukrainian and Russian authorities. But while Ukraine’s version has overall been confirmed by international media – even though it did present some contradictions –, Russia’s claims have been debunked.

The Kremlin, in fact, stated that bodies were not there when its troops left Bucha, but instead they were actors placed by Ukrainians to stage the massacre and blame Russia for it. This theory has been proved to be completely false by several international media, among which the New York Times, which analyzed satellite videos and images from before and after the liberation of Bucha, showing that corpses were already there when the town was under Russian control.

Laura Loguercio

Tommaso Canetta